As a junior in high school, I was finally able to enroll in the photography class. Offered only every other year, this was the only time the course was available to me (it was not open to freshman), and since there was only one section, the period three class was my only shot.
So, when my guidance counselor pulled me into his office on the second day of school to tell me I had to drop photography to take a more college-friendly Spanish class, I knew my opportunity was lost. This was in 1988, five years before Mosaic was introduced to the world, seven years before Netscape made the World Wide Web available to the masses, and a decade before virtual schooling was an option. Unless I could find a private mentorship, my only access to formally learning photography was period three during my junior year of high school and, since I had to take Spanish, that was no longer an option for me.
A New Ingredient
Today, not much has changed in the brick and mortar environment. Most students still push through a seven- or eight-period day, 45-day quarter and 180-day school year. Unfortunately, mandates, physical plant limitations, local political pressures and institutional traditions have limited even the best intentions of rethinking the traditional school calendar and schedule.
This is why the flexibility found in virtual schooling environments should be so attractive to educators, students and parents alike. Not bound by the constraints of physical space or out-of-date school calendars, virtual schools can provide opportunities for students to take courses at a time and place that meets their needs. In my case, I could have taken my photography course on my own time and still completed that Spanish course during third period of my junior year.
Yet the brick and mortar environment still looks at virtual schools with contempt. The rigor of virtual coursework is often questioned, the reliability of the space is sometimes not trusted, and all too often virtual options are looked on as competitors to local schools. And in some cases, those reputations are well deserved. Too often, independent virtual schools might be no more than diploma mills openly competing against local schools.
From Rivalry to Partnership
As virtual schools mature and become a more accepted option for students, however, it's time for the partnerships between the two to mature as well. Instead of competing, virtual schools need to partner with local schools and allow individual students to create what Staker and Horn call a "self blend model."
And instead of automatically eschewing virtual schools as low-level, easy-way-out for their students, brick and mortar schools need to investigate how virtual options may provide multiple pathways for their students to earn credits, recover learning, explore an interest or follow a passion, all while taking control of their education through a variety of modalities.
Instead of viewing the relationship between virtual and brick and mortar schools as an "us or them" rivalry, it's time to start viewing it as an "us and them" partnership. It's time for state legislatures to develop funding models that support blended enrollment options for students seeking the flexibility of virtual schools as a way to supplement their brick and mortar schooling.
We now live, teach and learn in an age when time and place no longer have to be limiting factors. We've reached a point where multiple pathways are, should and can be available to any student, anywhere at any time. When I was hoping to take my photography class, there were no other options. I was forced to make choice, a choice that no student should have to make today. It's time for schools to unite and break the barriers of time, place and tradition so that each student can be empowered to develop his or her own learning path, a path which can include a blended mix of brick and mortar, virtual, experiential and personal learning options.